Twenty-three countries have declared they will participate in a new EU defense cooperation pact, part of a broader push to advance European integration, officials said Monday.
France and Germany proposed the initiative last year as part of their efforts to breathe new life into the European project after Britain voted to leave the bloc.
Britain’s impending departure made it easier to get the project off the ground as London has traditionally been skeptical about EU military cooperation, seeing NATO as the main vehicle for common European defense efforts.
“It’s going to be quite a historic day for European defense,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told reporters before the meeting in Brussels at which ministers approved the plan.
All EU countries except Britain, Ireland, Denmark, Malta and Portugal said Monday they would sign up to the pact, which will be officially launched at a summit next month. By the time of the summit, diplomats expect only Britain, Denmark and Malta not to be involved.
The new initiative aims to spend more on defense systems and make member countries’ militaries much more integrated with each other.
Although the initiative, known as Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) in EU jargon, is a Franco-German brainchild, some differences between Berlin and Paris have emerged, diplomats said. Germany wanted the pact to include as many countries as possible while France wanted it to be as militarily ambitious as possible, they said.
On his way into the meeting, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called the pact “a very important step,” recalling that there was “little enthusiasm” when it was first mooted. But, he said, “we must go further” in defense cooperation.
Participants have signed up to a list of commitments which “include increasing the share of expenditure allocated to defense research and technology with a view to nearing the 2 percent of total defense spending” and to “regularly increasing defense budgets in real terms.”
EU officials have identified defense as an area where they have made progress on multiple fronts since Britain voted to leave. These include the establishment of an EU defense HQ for training missions in Somalia, Mali and Central African Republic, a pilot project to coordinate national budgets to identify capability shortfalls, and the new military pact.
The new initiative aims to spend more on defense systems and make member countries’ militaries much more integrated with each other. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel stressed it would have economic benefits. He said Europe spends 50 percent as much as the United States on defense yet only has 15 percent of its military efficiency.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (left) and German Defense Minister Ursula Von der Leyen (right) speak during the meeting of EU foreign affairs and defense ministers | Olivier Hoslet/EPA
Earlier this year, the European Commission launched a major financial incentive for countries to cooperate on defense procurement, with a new European Defense fund worth €5.5 billion per year.
Estonian Defense Minister Jüri Luik said the main focus of the new initiative would be defense industries as “collective defense will always remain in NATO.” And despite calls from Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to set up an EU army, this idea remains “something which is very unlikely,” Luik said.
The 23 countries that announced their intention to take part in the new initiative are Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Croatia, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden.